Pink Floyd has just recently released its latest studio album, The Endless River, this month. That’s not just the only milestone for the band this year; 35 years ago, it also put out its landmark double-record The Wall. From five years ago, here’s my conversation with drummer Nick Mason who spoke about The Wall when it then turned 30.
Originally published in Spinner, November 16, 2009
by David Chiu
Pink Floyd’s classic double-record ‘The Wall’ has not only been a staple of rock but has also been a part of pop culture trivia, as founding drummer Nick Mason learned. “There’s a program here [in Britain] called ‘University Challenge,’” he tells Spinner. “Just by chance they happened to ask these students to name the song and the guitar player. I’m sad to say they failed. They didn’t seem to know either Pink Floyd, David Gilmour or ‘Comfortably Numb.’”
Originally released on Nov. 30, 1979, ‘The Wall’ later spawned a movie of the same name and has since sold 23 million copies in the US, according to current RIAA figures. This month marks its 30th anniversary and the surviving members of Pink Floyd — Mason, Gilmour and Roger Waters — talk about the album in a two-part special for the radio program ‘In the Studio With Redbeard’ airing this week.
As told in Mason’s 2005 book ‘Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd,’ the origins of ‘The Wall’ can be traced to an incident at a Pink Floyd show at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in 1977. An audience member in the front was acting unruly and a frustrated Waters spat at him. Mason wrote that Waters later arrived at “a concept of an audience both physically and mentally separated from their idols.”
“Roger had actually been working two separate ideas: the skeleton of ‘The Wall’ and ‘The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking’ [which later became Waters’ 1984 solo album],” says Mason. “We were almost offered the choice of which one we thought would be the one to go for, and it was unanimous that ‘The Wall’ was the concept that we’d all identify with.”
The album contained several popular Floyd songs including ‘Another Brick in the Wall Part II,’ (the band’s only American number one song) and ‘Comfortably Numb.’ “The interesting thing about that,” says Mason of the latter, “it’s in the Beatles concept that if you have a song and it’s missing something, someone else has got a half song and just slots it in. David did that high-strung melody. It just fitted in perfectly.”
Internally, there was tension during the making of the album: keyboardist Richard Wright was fired by Waters because he didn’t make a major input to the recording, according to Mason’s book. “It was due to Roger feeling he had the muscle to do it and us being pathetic in terms of not fighting it,” Mason explains. “It was a fairly simple situation where we were being offered a lot more money to get the thing finished and Rick should have just said, ‘Of course I’ll get on with it.’”
Equally memorable from ‘The Wall’ era was the tour, highlighted by the construction of an actual wall between the band and the audience. “It was fun to play the shows,” Mason says, “because in some ways it was the pinnacle of a Floyd show. It was one of those moments where a rock show was taken to a different level. When Roger gets his Broadway [musical version of ‘The Wall’] done eventually, it could work really well. It does have quite a lot of the structure there already.”
As for Pink Floyd today, there has not been much news since the Live 8 reunion in 2005, aside from Gilmour’s solo album and the deaths of Syd Barrett and Richard Wright. Mason says he has been going through some archival film and video footage for a possible anthology. “It’s a pretty long-term idea,” he says. “There’s still an interest in keeping the music alive. It’s really a long shot for David and Roger to go back into the studio together. I think we all still feel that we have a real interest in our history.”
Asked to explain ‘The Wall”s longevity after 30 years, Mason responds, “There’s more than one theme running through it, which is the other thing what I think gives it a bit extra. It’s about isolation and walls between people. It has a certain element of abstraction that make people be able to put some of their own thoughts into it.”